By Marc Lubner
Youth Month 2022 falls just as a glimmer of hope begins to illuminate a brutally dark period in South Africa’s present-day reality.
Our country’s history is characterised by the resilience of our people, who rise triumphantly to reshape our future from the ground up time and time again.
Despite the ongoing triple burden of poverty, inequality and unemployment, we’ve survived the most unprecedented pandemic in modern history, so there is no better time to pause and acknowledge the green shoots of post-pandemic recovery than now.
Every step forward, no matter how small, is a step closer to where we want to be as a nation.
The small but promising progress includes improvements in both gross domestic product (GDP) and unemployment numbers for the previous quarter.
While 7.9 million people are still jobless, with the impact felt most by youth aged between 15-24 years (63.9 percent) and 25-34 years (42.1 percent), it is promising to note that South Africa’s overall unemployment rate has decreased by 0.8 of a percentage point to 34.5 percent, in comparison to the previous quarter and 370 000 more people were employed while 60 000 fewer people were unemployed.
The economy’s slow recovery, as represented by the latest GDP data, offers us a reason to be hopeful and even optimistic.
After two years, quarterly GDP figures show a modest economic expansion in the first quarter of 1.9 percent.
This is the second consecutive quarter of growth, taking the economy to pre-pandemic levels, with real GDP even slightly higher than before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sustained economic growth depends on providing employment opportunities to the youth and breaking down the barriers to entry into the job market.
The government’s efforts to include youth in its pandemic recovery package through programmes such as the Presidential Employment Stimulus, which has provided thousands of young people the opportunity to work as teaching assistants in public schools, is a great step in this regard. Initiatives like these have a lasting impact with a ripple effect - starting with improving the life of the classroom assistant through to the inspiration they can provide to future teachers who pass on their passion for learning.
Youth–centred initiatives, however small or temporary, sow the seeds that will produce the future leaders of an inclusive future economy. We each have a role to play in nurturing our youth, driving participation and inclusion in the economy and future of South Africa, which lies, after all, in their hands.
There is a time for everything, but not everything at a time
Youth Month provides us with an opportunity to prioritise our efforts and resources and focus on areas that will have sustainable and far-reaching implications for young people. It is also an opportunity to recognise the role of youth in driving the fundamental changes needed to future-proof organisations against the risk of regressive policies and strategies, which do not include the voice of youth.
Young people have strong opinions about the future of our planet that can be channelled into skills that will find solutions to the challenges of climate change that they, and not us, will face.
The supply chain disruptions we experienced during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and further exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine have illustrated the strength and resilience of our domestic agricultural sector.
Despite the impact of extreme weather conditions, including floods and drought, agriculture remains a sector that represents opportunities for growth for entry-level employment for unskilled young people.
In addition, agriculture is one of the low-hanging fruits that can create value for youth in the economy, combined with a provision to access to nutritious food and skills development.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) offers great youth employment opportunities. We, however need to ensure that, as a country, we keep up with technological developments and do not fail our young people.
A report by Deloitte Global and the Global Business Coalition for Education has warned that two billion youth around the globe could face a bleak future by 2030 owing to the widening skills gap in digital technologies.
We need to ramp up efforts to support those at risk of being left behind by providing young people with the competitive edge to close this gap by expanding access to technology opportunities. We need buy-in from both the public and private sectors to develop programmes that will substantially mitigate these risks to our economy.
It is essential that improvements in skills transfer, and access to opportunities, including finance and markets for young entrepreneurs, are rigorously pursued to ensure that South Africa’s youth take the wheel and lead us into a prosperous future. We cannot afford for young people to be spectators on the sideline of our economy.
The country requires a proactive and economically active youth to take it forward with support programmes that raise and create future innovators, entrepreneurs, job creators and problem solvers.
Together we can continue to drive impactful and equitable social and economic justice.
There are already positive signs that inspire hope.
Our marching orders are clear.
We must walk united in our shared vision for the next chapter of our story and make youth inclusion a core value that underpins our every step forward.
Marc Lubner is the CEO of Afrika Tikkun Group.